Love the List

Over the years, I’ve espoused the importance of lists over and over again as a vital resource for the busy grad student. Today, once more, I find the need to cry out the wonderful benefits of list-writing. So, if you’ll indulge me as I get meta for a brief moment, here’s a list of reasons why lists are important:

  • They keep you organized. Pretty self-explanatory. The key here is understanding you own work habits and figuring out how to support them; “organized” means different things to different people. We all have our own individual ways of working and lists are going to function differently for each of us. Love your list, understand your list, allow your list to understand you.
  • They keep you from forgetting things. If you write it on the list, it’s there for you to see when you’re panicking about it later. Boom. Like magic.
  • They help you relax at the end of the day. Often if I’m in a real panic after work hours, sitting down and writing a list of the “need to do” things for the next day will alleviate this because it helps me see how much I actually need to do and keeps me from getting anxious that I’ll forget any of it. Lists also help me consolidate tasks for the day and see where I am in my work progression and what I need to do next to get where I want to be. If I follow my list, I can’t go wrong.
  • They keep you on track. Before I leave my desk at the end of a very busy day, I write a brief list for myself of what I need to do the next day. This allows me to free my mind for the evening, devote attention to other things, then dive in in the morning right where I left off without thirty minutes of figuring out where exactly that was. At-a-glance information is always better than “I put it somewhere” information; it’s all about trimming minutes off the edges of your many tasks so that you can fit as much as possible into one day’s work.
  • They give you a concrete look at what you’ve accomplished in a day. When you’re working on a giant, seemingly endless project that moves like the desert sands (like… say… a dissertation…), you need this. Without a hard look at the physical facts of what I’ve done with my daytime hours, all too often I feel like I’m spinning in a giant hamster wheel: running hard but never really getting anywhere. Incidentally, treadmill running also feels this way… but at least that gives me a good endorphin kick as a reward for my troubles. If I keep a hard copy list of tasks that I need to do in a day (or period of time), then I can see how much I’ve crossed off the list. I also get to give myself an awesome feeling of accomplishment when I tear up/cross out/scribble over/destroy by fire this page of notes. Boo-yah!

There it is; lists. Trust me on this. You’ll live a better life once you’ve taken their power for your own purposes.

Keep Calm and Soldier Forth

One of the hardest things about the Dissertating process so far has been acceptance. Specifically accepting that there will be things that happen in and around my life which have a direct impact upon my ability to work on a given day, but over which I have no control.

One of the many issues that plague us grad students is the constant drive to keep working. Because we are masters of our own time, and because there is ALWAYS something more you could be doing, it’s very easy to live with the constant guilt that you could be working right now. Weekends, evenings, much-needed sanity breaks; it doesn’t matter. There will always be that feeling that you could be doing something “more productive” than whatever it is you are currently doing. Even worse, since most of us work from home offices, there’s no sense of “leaving work at work”; my work is always with me just a click away.

What this means is that when life gets in the way, you feel doubly guilty. When you have to spend an hour or two taking your car to get fixed, or you need to go to a doctor’s appointment, or any number of acceptable semi-urgent life situations that just need to be taken care of during “regular business hours” and could throw a giant monkey wrench in your work day, you can feel pretty terrible about it.

For instance: right now, they are doing some major construction on my apartment complex. It’s disruptive, noisy, and means that there are generally workmen staring me in the eye through my office window even though I’m on the second floor. At some point during the next several weeks, there will be workmen in my apartment who I will be required to accommodate by essentially disassembling my office so they can get done what they need to get done. I also will not have access to my own home for at least two days during work hours since they will be in it.

This is not an ideal situation. It keeps me from being as productive as I could be (or “should” be). But I have almost no control over it. I can’t stop it, I can’t make it better, all I can do is work around it as best I can.

It would be easy to throw my hands up and say “I can’t work today because of this thing I have no control over.” The much more difficult path, and the one that I have to take if I hope to ever complete this monster project, is to cope.

Dealing with writing a dissertation is stressful and overwhelming. Dealing with the academic job market is stressful and overwhelming. But this doesn’t mean that the world is going to stop around me; if I want to finish (and oh man do I want to finish), I have to find a way to work through the outside distractions and inconveniences. Adaptability is my friend; finding ways to vary up my routine that won’t prevent me from getting things done just needs to be a way of life.

It’s not easy; but if I wanted “easy” I wouldn’t have gone for a PhD. It’s definitely not convenient. But it is what it is; and I just have to soldier through to reach my goals. Nobody ever said that walking to Mordor would be a tiptoe through the tulips.

Take it Away

Hello, gentle readers. I am currently writing you from my spot holed up in a hotel room in quiet and scenic Bethlehem, Pennsylvania; a place I had only ever heard of before because of the Billy Joel song that I’ve had stuck in my head since we arrived.

My partner has been traveling a great deal for his job lately. One of the many benefits of my insanely flexible schedule is that, since most of my work is reasonably portable, I can often pick up and ship out with him. As it turns out, being alone in the house with my computer, my books, and my fish for days on end isn’t the best thing for my sanity. As a result, whenever possible I take the opportunity to move my work with me. The crazy thing that I’ve found is that my gypsy life has made me much more productive. This is for several reasons:

  • Distractions are at a minimum. Since there’s not much to do in a hotel room other than the things I bring with me, I am forced into a situation where I have to focus on checking items off of my to-do list. I don’t look around and feel the urge to clean or straighten anything. I don’t have to cook, so I don’t blow off early to start an overly complicated dinner routine just to be away from the desk. I do go for runs still, but those are necessary. It’s a pretty great win-all.
  • Since I’m not at home, the usual at home requirements are on hold. I don’t have to suddenly go to a doctor’s appointment, or take my car to be inspected, or do a grocery run for some weird thing we forgot over the weekend. I don’t have to take out the garbage or recycling, or get the mail which might turn into a 20 minute distraction that takes an hour to re-focus from. I don’t have to deal with any household responsibilities that might take time away from writing. Again, I’m forced into a pressure-cooker situation with my work; my options are work on research or work on writing rather than work on work or work on life stuff.
  • While the hotel is comfortable, it’s not my comfort zone. I don’t feel the siren call of my bed beckon to me at 3:00 PM because my bed is several states away. I don’t have a comfy couch to lounge on with some Netflix at lunchtime. If I want coffee, I can grab some in the lobby; but this doesn’t turn into a spontaneous round of let’s do dishes. I have everything I need, without having any extras.
  • Any bad work-related habits I have are thrown off due to the lack of routine. Since my normal flight patterns are disrupted by not being at home, this means that I have the opportunity to create better ones in this space. When I find myself in a situation that strips me of my habits, I try my hardest to create new ones that are better than the old ones. This is particularly true when I’m in a space that’s temporary; I can be extra super diligent about working (you know, more than even usual) for a span of a few days and not allow myself the small distractions which can turn into big distractions because I can always go back to those “when I get home”. Being away gives me the unique opportunity to work out the kinks in my routine by completely scrapping the routine.
  • Since I’m not exactly in a hopping, bustling city, I don’t have the kind of after-work distractions that can lead to fatigue or illness the day after. It’s not like I’m going bar hopping in Bethlehem Pennsylvania (or doing much of anything that will keep me out late). I can go to bed at a reasonable time, not feel like I’m being “lame” or missing out on something because of it, and wake up refreshed and ready to work the next day.

In short, if possible, I highly recommend taking your work on walk-about. Break up your routine in any way that you can (coffee shop visits, libraries, etc.) just to get yourself out of the house and observing your work habits. You might find that such “work-cations” lead to increased productivity and overall betterment of sanity.

Write strong, my brethren!

Don’t Let it Win

Some days, the dissertation wins.

There are days when I walk away from the keyboard with a feeling of triumph. I’ve conquered some little corner of some little mountain, but oh man does it feel so good. There are days when I feel like I’ve accomplished something major like reading through my stack of allotted books, finishing a draft and being happy with it, or closing a chapter of research and being ready to prepare it for its next stage.

Those days, I win.

But some days, the diss gets the upper hand. I get burnt out, I can’t communicate my thoughts clearly, I get so wound up in the tiny things that I’m unable to accomplish anything of substance. There are days when I feel like an unmitigated failure for not getting through that last 250 pages of reading, for not muscling my way through red-penning those last ten pages, for finding myself with not enough brain functionality left to do anything significant after 3:00 PM.

I’m told it’s a common phenomenon.

So here’s the thing: you’re never going to have a perfect string of days no matter what you’re doing. You’re never going to always feel like the top of the world; you’re never going to always consistently succeed at every tiny task. There will be setbacks. There will be days when the stupid writing project wins the battle.

So long as you have more days when you win, you’re still at a net positive.

The important thing when you find that you’ve lost the arm wrestling match for a day is that you do what you need to do to recover. Exercise, drink a beer, sleep, watch some Netflix; whatever it is that will reset you and get you prepared to fight another day. Do it. Avoiding it when you’ve hit the bottom of the bucket is just going to do more self harm than good. Taking the time to self-care and recover is going to give you more productivity in the long run, so just put the red pen down and back away from your desk.

Then, get back on the horse. You need to keep going back into the fray if you ever expect to win. Begin each day fresh with new research goals, new word count objectives, and a new attitude. One bad day does not have to mean a failed project; it just makes you human.

Don’t let the dissertation win.

It can have the battle; don’t give it the war.

Tools of the Trade

Writing a dissertation (or any long project; particularly one that involves research) is a specialized skill that requires specialized training and (not to be ignored) specialized equipment. While I suppose in theory you could write a dissertation on a single laptop with nothing but Microsoft word and an internet browser, doing so would be a great disservice to yourself and make your life needlessly complicated. In the digital age, technology is plentiful, relatively inexpensive, and generally easy to operate. There’s no reason to do without certain vital tools that can make your writing days more productive.

With that goal in mind, I thought I’d take a minute to share the tools of my trade; the things I use to write and research that make my life infinitely easier. I would go so far as to say that I probably wouldn’t have made it to this point in the process without them. For me, these tools are simply necessary to productivity; I think you’ll find them equally useful.

For reference: my primary machine is a basic model Macbook Pro from 2012. Nothing fancy, but definitely gets the job done.

External Monitor 

The only “excess” technological asset that researchers have found actually increases productivity is increased monitor space. It’s not the speed of your hard drive or parallel processing capabilities, but rather how much (literal) digital space you have to lay things out. For me, the external monitor is key to almost everything I do. It allows me to open a text on one screen and my notes on a second, thus transcribing with ease. It allows me to open my notes on one screen and my writing document on a second, thus allowing me to write from research with ease. It allows me to open multiple images on a large scale and compare them side-by-side. It allows me to have my citation manager available for reference during note taking and writing. My external monitor has been key to my work as a Graduate student, academic, and person in the world. And, when you’re taking a break for lunch or what have you, you can play your YouTube videos on one monitor while browsing the web on the second. It’s a win/win. If you’re not writing/researching from two monitors, you’re basically living in the dark ages. Invest in this not-terribly-expensive but terribly-useful tool now; I promise you won’t regret it.


Anyone who works on any serious project needs to have a backup strategy. While e-mailing yourself copies of your work might be one way to do this, there are easier and more consistent methods. I use a combination of Dropbox, Crashplan, and Google docs to save my work in triplicate both locally and in the cloud. No matter what you decide to use for backups, make sure that your plan includes: redundancy, frequency, and version history. You want to know that your work is being backed up on a regular basis, to several places, and that you can roll back a version should you need to.

External mouse and Keyboard

Because I’ve basically created a docking station for my mac, the external mouse and keyboard have become necessary. I’ve found, over the years, that I much prefer a conventional mouse to the built-in track pad that most laptops have. Additionally, an external fully sized keyboard makes it easier for me to type ergonomically. A few clever re-programs of the hotkeys on my Mac and it’s just as good as using the built-in keyboard. I use a Logitech wireless mouse/keyboard, and have since purchased several external travel mice for use when I’m on the go. 

Writing Tools 

I’ve previously gushed about the ease and functionality of Scrivener to my writing process.  If you are interested in Scrivener, here’s my affiliate link for windows, and here it is for Mac.  I will take this moment to emphasize how necessary the program has been to the continued success of my work. Additionally, this project is the first time I’ve used automated citation management software and I’m never looking back. I use Zotero because it’s free, integrates seamlessly to Word (where I do my composing; Scrivener I use for note-taking), and has a Scrivener work-around if I REALLY want it. If you do choose Zotero, make sure you know how to back up your library; it’s only a tiny bit tricky and requires an extra step every now and again to accomplish. Totally worth it for peace of mind.

Caveman Tools

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

my computer set-up with bookstand in use

This is not a technical tool whatsoever, but when I’m working with actual books (which I do with a surprising frequency), I use a bookstand to hold them up for ease of transcription. I seriously don’t know how I did without this thing. When I’m editing by hand (which I also do with a surprising frequency), I use a clipboard and many different colored pens. It’s crazy how much easier this has made my life; for years I’d edit on large hardcovers, notepads, or binders…. I finally broke down and spend the $5 on a clipboard and look at that! The rudimentary technology works exactly the way it’s supposed to!

So…. What tools are you using for dissertation writing that you simply can’t do without?

Soloist: Dealing with Isolation

One of the big challenges that we grad students (particularly non-resident grad students caught somewhere between late dissertation writing and the job market) face is isolation. Going from a structured schedule that involves a highly-social job (teaching and or learning) to sitting at home alone with your research every day can be extremely challenging. If you’re not the type of person that deals well with large tasks to perform in unstructured time, then you’ll face even worse troubles at this stage of the game (and frankly it’s a miracle you got this far). I’m not going to say that I’ve solved the many problems of academic isolation, they are definitely demons I face every day, but I’m coping and I certainly put a lot of thought into how to cope with these issues. Here are a few of my better brainwaves for methods I use to help deal with academic isolation.

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University's "Richard III"

Sometimes my job looks like this; a day of FD work on Tufts University’s “Richard III”

Get a Job

I’ve tried to keep a hand in teaching as much as I can, even when that means taking on alternative teaching jobs. I spent a few years teaching continuing adult education which was extremely rewarding and gave me somewhere to be once a week to make human eye contact and discuss things I was passionate about with other people. Though this program didn’t pay “the big bucks”, it was a worthwhile use of my time in that it got me out of the house, gave me a forum in which to try out new teaching materials, and gave me teaching experience that I might otherwise not have had the opportunity to acquire. But even when there are no teaching jobs available (this happens sometimes and it’s not your fault), consider taking on a very part-time, very temporary position somewhere near your beaten path. A few hours of responsibility, social activity, and paid work every week can do wonders for your self-esteem at this highly volatile time. Finding the right fit for this can sometimes be challenging, but think about things you’d actually like to do and see if you can’t monetize them. Remember: not every job you work has to go on your resume and you never know when you’ll meet someone who may just be a useful connection for your true professional calling.

Reach Out

I am not a highly social creature during the best of times, and my social energies get sapped very quickly when I’m under a lot of stress. What this has generally meant is that the dissertation process has made me not just an academic hermit, but a social hermit as well. At the end of the day, the last thing I tend to want to do is go out and be social. Despite this, I try to make an extra effort to see people who I know will 1) understand the process I’m going through, and 2) put positive energy back into my bucket. There are a few friends I have who I know are low-key to be around, will support me if I’m feeling not so great about my work life, and will understand if I just don’t want to talk about much of anything. Being around these people as much as possible (which, let’s face it, is not much when you have a demanding professional schedule) is important to keeping the lonelies at bay. I’m often pleasantly surprised at what an evening in the right company can do for my mood; and my mood in turn effects my productivity. In short: the right amount of time with the right people will help you be a better writer.

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Museums can be a cheap way of getting out and staying mentally in the game. This is me an P.T. Barnum (i.e.: My chapter 4) at the National Portrait Gallery in DC

Vitamin D

Sometimes, just leaving my house to go for a walk can help to improve a dismal mood brought on by dissertation-related isolation. Fresh air and sunshine are mood-lifters, and endorphins will give you an extra kick to boot. If you’ve been keeping up with Dani Dash, you know that I tend to go running rather than walking these days, but whatever your speed taking a break outside is definitely worth your while.

Have a (Small) Treat 

While we grad students live on a notoriously tight budget, now and again a special treat can help you support yourself. Sometimes, this treat can be productivity related; if I’m stuck in the “I don’t wanna” phase of editing, I’ll take my draft to a favorite coffee shop and grab myself a drink (I almost never buy coffee, so this is a great little treat). Sometimes, it can be self-care related; if I’m feeling extremely stressed or strung out, I’ll find a groupon for a massage and take an hour just to refuel and unwind. The pitfall here is obvious: too much of a good thing can break your budget and self-reward structure. Just be careful about how frequently (and how much) you are treating yourself; but don’t feel guilty when you do on occasion (especially if you plan and budget for this). You are worth it.

Remind yourself Why 

This one is the biggest challenge. Facing down today’s job market, it can be difficult to remember why we’re doing what we’re doing in the first place. If you can find any way to remind yourself, any trigger to reinvigorate the passion which led you down the road you’re traveling, revisit it as frequently as you need. Often I get so caught up in the writing portion of dissertating that I can’t see the forest for the trees; it’s in these moments that I need to go see a show, or look at old journal entries, or re-read particularly glowing course evals from former students. Find a touchstone that will help key you in to what you love about the work and never let it go. I’m not saying you need to moon like an adolescent love poem, but without taking the time to reinvigorate your passion now and again you’ll slide into the doldrums of the grind and that is soul crushing. Fortify with frequent doses of vitamin L(ove) and try to ignore the vampiric voice of futility.

Get Help

I know many people (myself included) who are likely to thank their therapists in their dissertation acknowledgements. If you’re feeling stuck, depressed, or just unable to shake your mood, there is no shame in seeking professional help. The right person will be able to talk you through your troubles and inject some new light on the subject. If your issues seem to be mostly grad-school related, I highly recommend seeking out a therapist with a PsyD. Since this person has been through the process of getting a Doctorate, they are much more likely to understand your journey and be able to offer insight without you having to explain every step of the way. They have first hand experience with the stakes and stresses of exams, research, advisors, and the myriad of other field-specific stressors that academic life entails.

Whatever you do, don’t let isolation impede your progress. Breaking the cycle is a pivotal piece of “getting it done” (which, at the end of the day, is really what you need to do).



Hello, all!

It being summer, it also happens to be a time of year when us educators are faced with the frustrating situation of explaining away certain myths about our jobs. One still prevalent is the “summer off”.

I know that the university calendar tells you that there’s no class over the three-month span between June and September. I am also aware that conventional ideas about summer equate to vacation, beaches, volleyballs, and children frolicking in fields of free time.

But let me assure you, simply because school’s out for summer doesn’t mean that we get “three blissful months” of sitting on our couches binge-watching Netflix. I can’t speak for everyone (especially because primary and secondary education are two different ballgames really). That said, I would like to give you a sense of what my summer, as an adjunct, a PhD Candidate, and a working artist, consists of:

I Write

So all that time during the “working semesters” when I’m not actually standing in front of a classroom teaching is generally reserved for teaching-related tasks. I have to prepare lessons, grade, deal with administrative issues, answer emails, meet with students, prepare exams, prepare projects, and monitor attendance (amongst other things). Since I am not in a situation where I am guaranteed work semester-to-semester, I also have to submit resumes, look for work for the coming semesters, and also work a few spare jobs on the side just to make ends meet. This means that my time to research and write is at a premium. As a PhD candidate, my primary focus needs to be finishing my dissertation. Summers mean that classroom-teaching-related-tasks go away and I can reclaim that time specifically for my dissertation project.

I Look for Work

As I mention above, I am not in a situation that guarantees work semester to semester (this is true for many adjuncts, by the way… having a long-term relationship with an institution makes your chances at acquiring work better, but does not guarantee you anything no matter how good you are at your job). This means that summertime is spent fervently applying to as many universities as possible hoping that enough of them will throw me a writing 101 or Theatre History class for the next semester. What with the way universities hire, I may not know whether I am, in fact, teaching a class until the week (or even days) before I step into the classroom. In some rare instances, I may be asked mid-semester to take over a class on a rush basis and come in same-day or next-day to teach someone else’s curriculum from someone else’s slides off of someone else’s syllabus.

I Work as Much as I Can

 Since teaching as an adjunct is not a guaranteed thing, and since the pay is generally poor enough that eking a living out doing it is nearly impossible, I have several side jobs. During the summer, in addition to the above-tasks, I also take on as much extra work as possible in hopes that I can squirrel money away to pay bills should next semester prove a bit lean.

I Battle my Mental Demons

Dissertation work is very isolating. Since summertime means that campus is very empty and I’m not generally leaving my house on a regular schedule to teach or run errands, it also means that I have a lot of time to spend by myself with my thoughts and my work. This can lead to some very unhealthy mental habits and thought patterns including (but not limited to): workaholism, depression, anxiety, and the host of physical complications which come with these troubles. Because of items 1-3, summertime can be extremely tough on a PhD Candidate, and a great deal of maintenance is required to ensure that we keep ourselves healthy. For me, this generally involves a high level of athletic activity (I’m currently training for a half marathon and a Spartan race); running several times a week ensures that I have micro-goals unrelated to my stressors which I can accomplish, that I leave the house and get some vitamin D with frequency, and that endorphins give me a little boost when I need it. I can’t recommend some kind of intense physical training in combination with dissertation-writing more; it has seriously changed my Diss-game dramatically.

All of this is not to say that Dissertation work is not rewarding (it is) or that I am not lucky to be where I am with my career path (I am), but to ask you to think a bit about some harsh realities. Particularly before you remark to your teacher friends that they are so lucky to have the summer off, or that you wish you could have three months of guaranteed vacation every year.

And on that note, I suppose I should return to my top priority: the ever-present dissertation. Cheers, all! Stay cool!

At the Finish Line

One thing I have emphasized as we go along (and that I feel the need to reemphasize) is the importance of cross training.

Getting a PhD is insanely taxing mentally and emotionally. You spend all day every day working out your brain (so… basically you can ignore those luminosity commercials that pop up in Hulu when you’re trying to kick back a bit). Moreover, your work becomes something that you’re invested in; there are huge emotional stakes in turning in a paper, chapter, draft, or even research proposal. Getting a PhD is tough on the psyche. But like working any muscle, it’s important to rest and relax between sets.

This is part of why I’ve taken up so many physical hobbies over the course of getting my PhD. When I was studying for my German language proficiency, I taught myself to play the ukulele because it would relax me and help me unjam my mind from words too long to fit on one line. When I was studying for my written comprehensive exams, I taught myself to crack a six foot bullwhip and spin poi because taking ten minutes to just step outside and do something in my own body really helped me to de-stress and uncram my brain so that I might fit a bit more in with each study session.

Workouts have also been an important part of this cross training. While I’ve been a long-time gym bunny, over the last year I’ve gotten serious about one workout specifically which has really helped me in a lot of ways: running.

It sounds silly because it’s something we learn to do as children. Everybody, after all, can run. But let me tell you, before I started my C25K program last year, I was pretty hopeless at it. I set in hoping to just complete a 5K (because who wouldn’t want to cross that completely doable task off their bucket list?). One Spartan Sprint later and I was hooked.

I’ve had to be careful; running is tough on your body and if you have any particular injuries or quirks it will exacerbate them (I, for example, have knee issues that I have to keep a close eye on). Since I started running outside, I also have learned to wear highlighter-colored jackets to avoid being hit by less-than-careful Massachusetts drivers.

But I’ve found that it’s extremely satisfying to train up distances. Nothing can turn around a bad day with my books like setting a goal and doing it; and my running goals are something I keep very achievable just for this reason. I upped the stakes this winter by investing in some cold-weather running gear and, despite being a general wimp about the cold, I’ve never enjoyed working out more. Cold-weather workouts mean that once you get warmed up, you have a pleasant (natural) coolant to keep you from overheating (… unless you accidentally put on too many layers which is a learning curve all to itself). Let me tell you, I was the most astonished when I woke up the morning of my most recent race to nineteen degree weather and thought “It’s not that bad out!”

feeling pretty beast at the finish line!

feeling pretty beast at the finish line!

This year, I’ve decided that to celebrate my achievements by running twelve races; one race a month in 2015. The races can be of any length, they just need to be chip-timed events (and it is, of course, preferable that there’s some kind of cool race-sponsored after-party to attend). On this Saturday past, I ran my first race of 2015: the Resolution Run to Kick Cancer 5k. I set a personal best for chip time, and even overheated in the nineteen-degree weather. Not a bad way to start my year of races!

In a world of hazy deadlines and work that has seemingly no end and no beginning, running these races gives me something to work towards, something to look forward to, and something to feel accomplished about at the finish line. If you’re in your writing phase and haven’t found that for yourself yet, I highly recommend that you do. It doesn’t have to be running, but it should be something that you can accomplish and feel proud about (and, ideally, share with the wide world of the internet; because what’s achievement without facebook fame?).

Next up for me will be the Super Sunday 5M (followed by the Black Cat 10M in March). I am really excited about it!


So I’ve been working on my dissertation almost specifically these days (I say “almost” because I still have a few side-projects going on, including my ongoing work with the Folger Shakespeare Library and some of their digital initiatives, but that’s probably a tale best told later).  I’m only teaching one class this semester (my continuing adult ed. class for OSHER lifelong learning), and it’s a very odd thing.

It’s odd because I’m working almost entirely on my own time.  I have nominal amounts of meetings, and deadlines are pretty hazy.  It’s odd because I don’t have to set an alarm if I don’t want to, because if I sleep in a little bit it just means that I have to work a little later that day.  It’s odd because I have lost almost entire sense of what day of the week it is and how that effects the rest of the world (let me tell you what it’s like to try and make appointments with businesses or doctors when you have small sense of “normal people time”).  And it’s odd because I spend all day, every day, all alone with my thoughts.  It’s true.  If I didn’t cohabitate with another human being, I would go LONG SPANS without making eye contact or speaking with another human without the interference of an electronic device.

So how can one possibly hope to succeed under these conditions? 

 Well, I’ve set up some pretty strict regulations for myself to ensure that work gets done and, so far, it seems to be working.

1)   I sit at my desk to work.  After breakfast, I put down the iPad and phone, and go plant myself at my desk.  And that’s where I stay until lunch.  I allow myself an hour for lunch, then I sit back at my desk until it’s an appropriate time to end the day.  I also allow myself a break to work out when I’m in true brain-fry space; but when I’m back and showered, I sit back down at the desk.  If I’m reviewing a show in the evening, or going to a rehearsal, or doing some other kind of legitimate work, I let myself “leave” a bit early just to provide enough cool-down time between jobs.  But other than that, I regulate my desk habits.  I find that if I don’t, I spend more time cleaning my apartment than conducting research.

2)   I set micro-goals.  Every day, before I leave my desk, I try to give myself a sense of what needs to be accomplished the next day.  Whether that’s “read this stack of books”, or “finish drafting another draft of this chapter”.  I always try to visually represent these goals for myself because otherwise the things I do become too theoretical to make me feel accomplished.  Sometimes this means setting out a stack of books for myself that I’m allowed to move to the “done” pile when I finish them.  Sometimes it means leaving the red pen on top of my draft so that I know it’s time for drafting.  Sometimes it means writing a list that I can cross off when I’ve completed tasks.  Whatever it is, I make sure to give myself the satisfaction of literally seeing accomplishment on a daily basis.  This keeps my morale high, and also gives me a sense of my pace and what I can reasonably expect from myself in a day.

3)   I update my social media feeds.  I know that, for some people, this can be a time-suck and a distraction rather than a boon, but for me it’s really refreshing to be able to post about funny things I read in my research books, or small accomplishments throughout the day.  Also, it keeps my twitter feed relevant and, as a result, refreshes the content on my blog which is directly linked to my SEO.  In other words: it kills a lot of marketing birds while simultaneously making me feel connected with the outside world.  I do make sure that, once I’ve posted my update, I minimize my browser windows and turn my phone upside down on

This guy helps.  He's my new office buddy: Sir Henslowe Fishigills; First of his Name; Lord of all the waters he swims

This guy helps. He’s my new office buddy: Sir Henslowe Fishigills; First of his Name; Lord of all the waters he swims

my desk.  This way, I have to work to become re-distracted by whatever’s going on on the internet.

4)   I evaluate situations fairly, but I don’t take excuses.  Since I’m essentially my own boss, I don’t let myself off easy.  I think this is probably a personality trait that most at the Candidacy stage share (if not, you probably wouldn’t have successfully reached Candidacy).  That said, there are sometimes things that will happen which will prevent productivity for a short time.  This winter, I’ve been dealing with some car troubles (for example) that will sometimes take me away from my desk for longer than I’d like.  On days when I am stuck out waiting, I take as much work as is feasible with me (pre-planning helps with this), but I also don’t beat myself up because I couldn’t read two books instead of one while waiting at the garage.  Know your limits, know your work habits, and know when it’s acceptable to push and when it’s acceptable to slack a little.  Also have a plan for when/how you’ll be able to make up missed work at a later date.

5)   I combat anxiety at every turn.  There are some well known psychological consequences to writing a dissertation.  Imposter syndrome, stress, anxiety, and occasional bouts of depression pretty much come with the territory (no, really, they’ve done studies on it).  Learning to manage these things for yourself is a personal journey that you’re going to have to accept and grow with.  Understanding for myself, what helped, what didn’t, and who I could turn to for what kind of help was HUGE in terms of my productivity.  Find your allies, find your coping mechanisms, and use them repeatedly and often.

6)   I take care of myself.  I’m writing a dissertation.  This is probably the biggest thing I’ve so far done in my entire life.  It’s a hugely taxing endeavor mentally and physically.  In order to get it done, I need to feel my best; and in order to feel my best I need to eat right, work out, drink plenty of water, and get enough sleep.  Period.  Nothing comes in the way of those things for me (and if it threatens to, I execute it before it executes me).  You have to make you a priority; even though it means sacrificing things you might want to be doing (like… say… social engagements).

 7)   Weekends are weekends.  I don’t work on the weekends.  I try not to even turn my computer on on the weekends.  I am entitled to two days off a week (…I will often review a show or FD a project on the weekends, but to me this doesn’t really count as “work” in the same way as working on my dissertation does).  The point is this: it doesn’t matter what your boundaries are, just find them and stick to them.

Those are the big ones for me, but obviously everyone is different.  Keep on plugging; that’s the real trick.  I hope that your writing is going as well as mine is!  Stay warm out there, everybody!

Holidays are Stressful

The hardest things about the holidays is letting yourself walk away from your desk.

This year, we’re going to be spending some time with family (a week of it away in New York). I’m really looking forward to seeing my family, I’m really looking forward to being in New York, but I’m not looking forward to the inevitable pile-up and feelings of guilt I will experience while I’m gone/when I return because I took some time off and didn’t work on my dissertation.

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

Though Holidays also meant I got to meet this guy: my Birthday Present was an encounter with GreenBlack the African Penguin!

December is a tough month to work through. The inevitably jerky start/stop rhythm necessitated by finals, end-of-semester celebrations, holidays, birthdays, etc. does not lead to the most productive environment for the academic writer. Especially the academic writer who is out of coursework and thus has no excuses about why end-of-semester is so tough on the brain.

Working at your own pace on your own calendar with only the loosest of deadlines set and agreed upon with any kind of higher authority can be taxing this way. It means that you are your own boss and, as everyone knows, being your own boss means that you have to answer to yourself. Your harsh, slave-driving, judgmental, over-achieving self.

The problem with this stage of the Ph.D. is that, by this point, you know your own limits because they were pushed and tested so hard by the rigors of your exams. During my peak Comps. studying time, I was reading 4-6 books in a day (…and watching at least one documentary or film as a sort of “cool down”). I was also, of course, not-so-slowly having a nervous break-down about the stress of studying for these colossal exams, and the pace at which I was cramming information into my head. Let’s just say that it wasn’t exactly the most healthy time of my academic life (… and that seems to be the common experience amongst humanities Ph.D. candidates).

Unfortunately, this also means that I know it is entirely possible for me to work at that pace and sustain it for four months. And because I know that, I know that when I’m not working at that pace I’m not working at top capacity. And because I’m my own boss and can’t hide anything from myself, excuses don’t really jive with me. So when I don’t output at that level, I feel like I’ve “wasted a day” unless I do some pretty serious sanity checks about what I actually accomplish in a given period.

Perspective is a hard thing to maintain when you’re staring down the eyes of something as big as the Dissertation beast. At the moment my beast and I are still friends, but I am fully aware that at any time it might turn on me savagely and tear my arm off. My only hope of survival is in keeping up with the deadlines I’ve imposed on myself. Ensuring that I don’t tire myself out with irrationally-placed demands while at the same time balancing the amount of work that I need to accomplish is key to winning the long game here.

So, while I’m not going to feel entirely good about it, I am walking away from my desk for a week. When I come back, I’ll be refreshed and good to go for another year. Or at least another several months until I can justify taking another break longer than my workout.

I hope you find it in yourself to put down the keyboard and leave the book stacks to themselves for a few days. I also hope that you have a wonderful holiday season full of warmth, love, and delicious food! I know I will; there’s a maple-glazed bacon turkey in my future.